the kosher guinea pigs

There is something to be said for embracing an experience that forces all involved to push their limits and figure out ways to find normalcy in even the most abnormal situations.  More often than not I walk away from situations and say to myself “Did that really just happen?” But if this experience were predictable in the slightest bit, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting…right?

Like I have written before, Yahel is being built completely from the ground up – we are in what I like to call, “guinea pig mode.” 

This past week we had the opportunity to host the Masa Delegation in Gedera and tell them a bit about what Yahel is doing here.  The Delegation was made up of Jewish and non-Jewish directors, presidents and founders from some of the top direct service organizations in the world including City Year, Peace Corps, Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service and Teach for America.  Out of about 150 Masa programs, they chose Yahel as one of the five or six programs to come visit.  We were honored, excited and nervous all at the same time.  A few of us created a presentation that exemplified our experience so far and in what ways we’ve incorporated the words of empowerment, humility, initiative, cross-culture, sustainability and collaboration into our time here.  In times of contentment and/or confusion, I look to these words and figure out how or if they connect to the situation.  After our presentation, community members made the delegates a traditional Ethiopian meal.  During our meal together, we spoke to them about our lives, how we got to where we are and where we hope to be in the future.  The feedback that the program and we received was incredibly uplifting.

One of the sources of my frustration here has stemmed from my “Homework at Home” involvement.  Although the whole point of the program is to create a productive and sustainable learning environment in the students’ homes, it seems the process is very difficult for my two boys.  If one boy tries to concentrate on what I’m saying, it is only a matter of time until his friend distracts him by getting up and walking away.  Last week when I arrived to my kid’s home, he was sleeping and didn’t want to wake up for our session.  As I sat there attempting to communicate with his parents, his father turns their television on high, blasting Ethiopian music until his son jumps out of his slumber and goes to get his shoes on.  In the meantime, the other boy hadn’t of showed up yet and we needed to go find him in the neighborhood.  As we arrived at the boy’s balagan (craziness) of a house, he was nowhere to be found.  At that moment, all I could think was that I didn’t sign up for this…and after a half hour, we finally found him walking around Gedera.  I sat them down and reinforced the reason why I am there, and if they didn’t want to learn, then I didn’t have to come.

I realized it was a good day to try something new, so I took them on a walk around Gedera and pointed out stores and items along the way to test them on their English vocabulary.  I took them out to ice cream and we sat at a table and talked about our families, our favorite foods and our love for animals.  It was nice to see them open up a bit and it helped me recognize the importance of us building a relationship of mutual respect. 

The session after our ice cream day was the first time I saw a glimpse of motivation in their eyes.  But because the home environment is not as conducive to this type of learning as I would like, I had to juggle with asking the siblings to stop throwing things at us, making sure the baby doesn’t climb on the table and rip our papers and ask everyone to stop screaming so we can focus.  I felt like I was a babysitter, with the parents nowhere to be found.  It’s difficult.  But it’s simply the look on their faces when I tell them how smart they are or how they answered the question right that is a constant reminder to me as to why I cannot give up on these two boys.  It seems they may have experienced that one too many times, and I refuse to be a similar person in their lives. 

On a different note, within the past couple of weeks I started teaching my new “Homework at Home” group of two 10th grade girls.  Prior to meeting with these two girls, I was unaware as to how a successful tutoring session was supposed to run.  It was a 180-degree shift from my other group, especially when I walked in and the house was empty, the TV was off and the girls came prepared with their pencil bag and books in hand.  I hope that my work with the two boys can help them reach a point where their excitement for learning and their realization of their potential overrides their struggle to focus and their lack of self-esteem. 

In terms of my individual placement, I feel like I am becoming an integral part of the FBN home office, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  It’s a place where I am confident in my ability to lend a hand with skills that I know I possess. Last week I helped prepare Yuvi, one of the founders of the organization, for her trip to the US by creating a new English power point, completing the new brochures and working together on her English speaking.  They look to me for suggestions and help and my work in the office has provided me with a good balance with my work in the community.  Last week I finished an article that FBN submitted for publication to the bi-monthly Israeli Ethiopian newspaper – when it is published I will try to post a link to it for all of the strong Hebrew readers :)  

Last Sunday we went on a Yahel trip to some of 2,000-year-old caves in the Judean Hills…speaking of which, have I ever mentioned my struggle with claustrophobia?  When we learned that the caves that we were going to climb through might be smaller than the size of our bodies, I felt like passing out right then and there.  With the support of the group, I determined this would be a perfect opportunity to tackle this phobia of mine.  We descended into the caves where we sat in a big open area and learned about how these were the caves where Jews hid from the Romans during the time of the Bar Kochba revolt.  Some of the caves acted as hiding places, where others acted as markets where Jews sold things such as birds, food or clothing.  We continued through the caves, where we needed to push our bodies through small holes one quarter the size of us. Although there were points when I started to freak out, I got over that fear and just did it – the “Go Rachel!”s and the “Woooo”s from those around me helped more than I can say.  I can’t deny that there was a moment when I was unsure I was going to make it out alive…especially when my body was contorted in five different directions and I accidentally tripped and blew out my candle, my only source of light…whoops. 

This past week we had a meeting with the mayor of Gedera, someone who I have come to understand is not highly supported by the majority of the Ethiopian community.  Although he doesn’t speak a lick of English, we looked at this meeting as an opportunity to communicate the challenges we have seen and experienced in this community.  As we asked our tough questions, we attempted to gain a better sense of the relationship between the municipal council and the Ethiopian community.  We heard of the city’s plans to build new schools, new housing and new retail centers, all of which will be built far away from the Ethiopian community.  Our conversation begged questions relating to what the municipality is doing to help the Ethiopian kids in school, to help the parents acclimate better to Israeli society and to help raise the community’s socio-economic level. 

The strategy that the municipal council is taking in working with the Ethiopian community is to essentially “go around” the parents, and take the kids out of their home environments as much as possible.  This strategy, so to say, is a completely opposite approach to that of Friends by Nature’s.  It was discouraging and difficult to wrap my head around this because so much of our work with FBN is focused around enhancing family ties and empowering the family unit.  I’m planning on using the next few months to attempt to understand which strategy seems to work best in this community. 

Following a session of rather intense questions, the mayor shifted attention and invited us to go to lunch.  Twenty minutes later we found ourselves sitting at a restaurant eating shwarma with him and four of his staff members. Two minutes later, our table was covered with endless salads, breads and meats.  To top it off, we ended the meal with Shoshana sharing a bowl of ice cream with the mayor.  Only in Israel…seriously.

I am so lucky to have my family in Jerusalem and friends around the country, and have spent almost every weekend visiting them. A week or so ago, I was happy to finally be able to visit my friend Sarah, who is participating in Career Israel in Tel Aviv.  It was really nice to have that touch of home, something I miss greatly.   

My trip to Tel Aviv reinforced my appreciation for Yahel and my life in Gedera.  When I was in the process of figuring out what program is best for me to do this year, Career Israel was definitely an option – but it would have been the “safe” option for me.  I know I would have felt comfortable and would have loved living in Tel Aviv (who wouldn’t?), but at the same time, I knew this year wasn’t about that for me. As I have stated time and time again, I knew I needed to be challenged.  I found a new appreciation for my experience through times of exhilaration, times of frustration and times of happiness.  And although I have attempted to WebMD-diagnose myself with all of the symptoms that come along with riding this roller coaster of emotions, it is this raw balance of the up’s and down’s that I have grown to truly appreciate and love.

1 comment:

  1. I will soon live in Gedera and teach English in the High School where two of the Yahel volunteers work with our staff. They have had an incredible impact on our students. Keep your chin up, keep thinking positive. I can totally relate to your one step forward, two steps back feeling. These kids are so lucky to have you, and I am sure that in the end, they will have learned a lot (as you are!) from the whole experience. Good luck!